Friday, August 12, 2011

The Wonders of Beekeeping

Photograph by Shane VanOosterhout 2011
     I was jittery when I began keeping honey bees this spring.  Although I had done my research on the subject over the winter, there is only so much a book can reveal before I have questions that are best answered through hands-on experience, or by more experienced bee keepers who are available on line.
     You Tube is useful for visual demonstrations of just about anything.  The trick is surfing through the crappy videos (most of them) to find a handful of jewels.  It's advisable to find excellent websites and then follow their suggested links as opposed to sifting through another appalling example of what not to do as a beekeeper.  
     On the other hand, perhaps it's not all bad to watch strangers screw up so that you don't have to.  Personally I find it hard to watch a guy inhale from a tobacco pipe and then exhale smoke directly on the swarm.  Nicotine is toxic to bees.  How many dimwits will watch that video and think it's a genius idea?
      When my package of bees was sent from Texas, it was delivered to a tiny town in Marine, Minnesota.  I live in Marne, Michigan.  Totally different zip codes.   After some anxious confusion and haggling, the bees were returned to sender.  The following week I received a new package of bees.  Fully suited, hooded and gloved with kid leather gauntlets, I nervously pried open the screened box and dumped the confused swarm into their new home -- a handsome cedar top-bar hive with a peaked copper roof.  The bees were agitated but immediately settled down just inside the entrance.  I left them alone for a couple of days, checking regularly from a few yards distance.
     It dawned on me that I had forgotten to note the placing of the queen's cage.  Ideally her cage should be placed at the top of the hive where the swarm will keep her warm while the workers free her.  Queen cages arrive with an impregnated queen trapped inside a tiny wooden container that is sealed with a hard candy plug.  It takes at least two days for the workers to eat through the candy and free their new queen. 
     After one week I opened the hive for the first time.  The swarm reacted defensively and many bees landed on my suit and hood.  I was breaking and entering.  Already they had begun construction on a tiny piece of wax comb about the size of a quarter.   I found the queen's cage lying on the floor of the hive, covered with a protective cluster of workers.  
     After gently shooing away the worker bees I was able to pick up the cage and look inside.  There was the frustrated queen, still trapped.  I placed her at the top of the hive where the workers could more easily attend to freeing her.  Still an awkward novice, I crushed about a half dozen bees in the process.  
     I returned to the hive five days later to find the queen still in her cage.  I took a small twig, poked out the remaining twenty-five percent of the candy plug, and set the queen free.  For a minute she lumbered slowly across the floor of the hive, unattended to.  Then, beautifully, some of her workers began to emerge from the swarm at the top of the hive as if they were fashioning themselves into a living rope, an amazing lifeline to sweep the queen from the floor and pull her up into the heart of the suspended cluster, where she has been happily laying brood ever since.

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

I think the life of bees is fascinating. My late husband used to keep bees and we enjoyed the hobby very much. Good luck to you Shane with your bees. Rosemary Schuette